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We have won the support of universities and employers as we seek to breach the long-standing divide between academic and vocational qualifications. In every area, a local partnership between schools, colleges and employers with the local authority will ensure that all young people are offered that wide range of choice. Whether they are going down the more academic route or seek a balance of academic and practical learning, they will be able to access a diploma.

Mr. Alan Beith (Berwick-upon-Tweed) (LD): How will that happen in an area where the nearest college of education is 50 miles away?

Ed Balls: In every area we will require that the full range of choice be made available. We are giving six years for preparations before 2013, when all 17 diplomas will be on offer. In the children’s plan, we discussed the important issue of transport. At that time, I referred to the fact that my hon. Friend the Minister for Schools and Learners had texted me from a plane at 5 in the morning to remind me not to forget the important issue of transport in rural areas. We are focused on that issue as we think about the next stage of our diploma reform.

Mr. Robert Flello (Stoke-on-Trent, South) (Lab): Does my right hon. Friend share my concern about transport? Schools—particularly new-build schools under BSF, the money for which is welcomed in Stoke-on-Trent—should be accessibly placed for local communities. I am thinking particularly of poor communities, which need to get hold of the resources and facilities that schools provide. Schools should be placed in good locations, not ones to which it is difficult to get transport.

Ed Balls: My hon. Friend the Minister for Schools and Learners has asked me to point out that he is in discussions with colleagues in Stoke-on-Trent to ensure that the BSF programme works in the best way for all children and young people there. He also said that he did not text from the plane; the text had been sent before he got on it. I say that for the avoidance of doubt on that detail.

In the children’s plan, we talked about the importance of schools being in the centre of their communities. The 21st-century school is one that involves parents, is open beyond the school day and co-locates services on site.

Mr. Flello rose—

Ed Balls: I will not take a second intervention from my hon. Friend. However, I assure him that the Minister for Schools and Learners is taking forward those discussions.

Mr. David Evennett (Bexleyheath and Crayford) (Con): I always listen with great interest to the Secretary of State. Skills shortages in this country are a real concern on both sides of the House. However, is there not a danger that the Government are neglecting the important point about the quality and relevance of education up to 16 and focusing only on its quantity by expanding it beyond 16?

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Ed Balls: No, there is no danger of that whatever. We are taking forward reforms in primary, secondary and early years education to make sure that in 2013, when the first 16-year-olds are affected by the provisions of the Bill, they are given the support and quality teaching that they need, and extra help if they need it, so that they make the grade. All the reforms to the children’s plan and to the primary curriculum and secondary teaching are essential to make sure that the provisions of this historic Bill have the right effect when they come into force in 2013. We will not let our focus on those reforms drop away at all.

Anne Snelgrove (South Swindon) (Lab): Does my right hon. Friend agree that the measures that he was describing before he started taking interventions are vital for improving skills levels in such towns as Swindon, which have really benefited from the economic boom during the past 10 years of Labour Governments? However, there is still a core of students who are not benefiting from the boom time because they simply do not have the skills that our modern, international companies require.

Ed Balls: My hon. Friend is right. There has been real progress in Swindon on increasing the number of apprenticeships. However, there is still further to go. Too often, young people who want an apprenticeship cannot find one in their area, and other parts of the country find that they have more apprenticeships on offer than they are able to allocate. We need to ensure that we do that better through our national matching service.

Another important part of the Bill makes provision for improved advice and guidance to young people in schools to ensure that they have the support that they need to make progress, and gives greater financial support to overcome the cost barriers that can prevent young people from participating. Our education maintenance allowances have been a major success, but we are strengthening them further and trialling extensions, including to entry into employment, to ensure that all young people who need EMAs can get them.

Philip Davies (Shipley) (Con): We may disagree about the value of forcing people to stay on in education when they do not want to, but I am sure we can all agree that if people do want to stay on in education we should be helping them to do so. The Minister has taken an interest in the case of my constituent Kirsty Oldfield, whose parents died in quick succession and who found herself, as an orphan, unable to afford to stay on in school. Will he consider tabling or accepting amendments to the Bill to provide direct support from his Department to the small number of orphans who find themselves in a tragic situation and cannot afford to stay on in school?

Ed Balls: My right hon. Friend the Minister for Children, Young People and Families, who is not here at the moment, has been in correspondence with the hon. Gentleman on that particular issue. The very unfortunate circumstances that affected his constituent should not have occurred, and she should not have received the advice that she did. We are addressing those issues in discussion with him.

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On the hon. Gentleman’s more general point, I believe he would agree that compulsion in education for 11, 12, 13, 14 and 15-year-olds is right. Those extensions were made in this House in previous Bills during the past 100 years. What I do not understand about his position is why he thinks, as a matter of principle, that compelling a 15-year-old to be in education is the right thing to do but compelling a 17-year-old is the wrong thing to do, when all the evidence is that countries around the world are moving in this direction because it is an economic and social imperative.

Mr. David Laws (Yeovil) (LD): Surely the Secretary of State understands the difference between individuals who are otherwise treated as adults and individuals who are clearly children. Does he not find it a rather odd contradiction that the Government are proposing to grant the vote to 16-year-olds while at the same time proposing to take away from them a freedom to exercise their own choice?

Ed Balls: I do not find it an odd contradiction at all. I will come to some odd contradictions in the hon. Gentleman’s position in a moment.

Mrs. Joan Humble (Blackpool, North and Fleetwood) (Lab): May I return my right hon. Friend to the point he made a moment ago about the importance of information, advice and guidance? Blackpool council is responding to the Government’s initiatives by putting together teams of workers who can offer appropriate advice and guidance to young people as they need it, with Connexions workers—including, I should put on record, my elder daughter, who works for Blackpool Connexions—youth workers, youth offending team workers, and specialist workers on teenage pregnancy and on drug and alcohol services. That will ensure that a young person knows who to go to and can get the right advice from appropriately trained people.

Ed Balls: My hon. Friend is right. Under the Bill, local authorities, when they take over the running of Connexions, will need to give advice and guidance that is not only impartial but tailored, particularly for children with special needs or learning difficulties. There will be special help for young people in custody and for teenage mothers, and we will need to ensure that we tailor support for children with those particular needs. However, that does not mean that they should be excluded from the provisions of the Bill. When we say “educational opportunity for all”, that should mean “all”.

On Friday evening, I was at a meeting in West Yorkshire with a young people’s panel brought together by Connexions West Yorkshire to listen to their views. They said it was important that in the sub-region, across local authority areas, these panels of young people should continue to come together to give feedback to advice and guidance services. I hope that that will continue in our area and around the country.

To clear up one point, I should stress it is important that the advice is impartial, and that it does not push children down a particular route, whether it is to a
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school or a college. The idea that that means that schools cannot give a view on the choice between A-levels or diplomas is nonsense, but it is important that the advice is impartial and that it promotes the best interests of the young person.

Chris McCafferty (Calder Valley) (Lab): My right hon. Friend referred to a visit he made on Friday evening to Connexions in Brighouse, in my constituency of Calder Valley. Does he agree that the extraordinary level of interest in the future development of the Connexions service expressed by those young people reflects the value that they put on the advice, guidance and information that they are receiving? Can he assure young people nationwide that they will be individually and collectively involved in any issues that concern their future lives?

Ed Balls: I can give my hon. Friend that assurance. I know that she has taken a close interest in Connexions in her constituency; indeed, she was at the meeting I attended on Friday.

My hon. Friend is quite right, and the interesting thing about the discussions that we had with those young people is that they had a series of questions to ask me about the future of Connexions and information, advice and guidance. I used the normal trick of trying to ask them a question back, and they knew the answers to my supplementaries better than I knew the answers to theirs, which is a tribute to their knowledge and understanding. I can happily assure her that such discussion and engagement with young people will be required as a consequence of the detail of the Bill.

Mr. Willis: From 2001, the Connexions service has offered careers education and guidance to students who were not going to get five good GCSEs. I hope that as far as this Bill is concerned, the new guidance system will offer high-quality guidance to every single youngster, so that we do not have a divide between A-levels for the best and skills for the rest.

Ed Balls: That is the last intervention I will take, and the Schools Minister has told me that that is a requirement. I can give the hon. Member for Harrogate and Knaresborough (Mr. Willis) the assurance he seeks. The Bill will work only on the basis of comprehensive, high-quality, universal advice for all 16 and 17-year-olds. A two-tier approach to advice just will not work.

The Bill requires us to raise our sights. It will require not just legislation and guidance, but a new culture of enterprise, learning and aspiration. In order for it to work, we will need a new consensus in this country, throughout schools and colleges, and among employers, parents and young people, to make it happen. I also hope that we will be able to build a consensus across the House, given the importance of this landmark legislation. The 1944 Butler Act, which raised the education-leaving age to 15, received cross-party support, as did the Fisher Act in 1918, which also raised the school-leaving age. In this Bill, we are making a reality, 90 years on, of the 1918 commitment to education until the age of 18. But we do not know the views of the Opposition.

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To give credit to the hon. Member for Yeovil (Mr. Laws), we know the views of his Front-Bench team—although not those of all Liberal Democrats. The new leadership of the Liberal Democrats is opposed to extending educational opportunity to all 16 and 17-year-olds.

I think that the hon. Member for Surrey Heath (Michael Gove) is opposed to our Bill, but he has not yet told the House of his true intentions. I hope that he will do so today. In recent weeks, he has persisted in cynical attempts to undermine and misrepresent our reforms by claiming that our policy is a gimmick or a stunt, or by deliberately misrepresenting it as forcing young people to stay on at school. He has also set his face against all the accompanying reforms that are essential if we are to make education to the age of 18 a reality. He is opposed to our curriculum reform, our new diplomas and our extension of EMAs, and he is committed to abolish the new deal, which we are extending for 16 and 17-year-olds who are not in education, employment or training. I hope that he will tell us today whether he will have the courage of his convictions and vote against the Second Reading of the Bill. Will he lead his side through the No Lobby or will he abdicate leadership and sit on the fence? Will he again duck that big issue? All the indications so far are that he and his party will join the Liberal Democrats in the No Lobby. Whether the Conservatives vote no or whether they abstain, however, they will still be reinforcing the view that theirs is the party of educational opportunity for some and not for all, opposed to the long-term radical reforms that this country needs.

Mr. Laws: Will the Secretary of State give way?

Ed Balls: No. Both the Conservative party and the Liberal Democrats are now embarrassingly out of step with the views not only of educationists but of business. The CBI said in its response to our Green Paper last summer that

In addition, David Frost of the British Chambers of Commerce said:

The CBI and the British Chambers of Commerce both welcome compulsory education until the age of 18—indeed, they say that it is necessary—yet the hon. Members for Surrey Heath and for Yeovil have put themselves and their parties on the wrong side of that debate.

The hon. Gentlemen are doing something more than that, however. Not only are they opposing reforms proposed in the House by this Government; they are opposing reforms proposed in the House by the great Tory and Liberal reformers of the past, such as Rab Butler and the former Liberal Member for Sheffield, Hallam—not the current one—Herbert Fisher. It might be interesting for hon. Members to learn that Herbert Fisher said of his 1918 Bill that it acclaimed the

in that it held that

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not just to 14 but to 18, and that that right was not just for the minority but for all young people. He was a Liberal reformer proposing a Liberal reform that the hon. Member for Yeovil now opposes.

Mr. Laws rose—

Ed Balls: I will not take any more interventions.

It is not too late, however. I urge Opposition Members to do the right thing. They should not stay stuck in the past or continue to take the view that excellence can be for only the few or that a two-tier Britain is inevitable. I urge them to join the consensus and back our reforms. We on the Government Benches are determined to deliver on the century-long ambition of the House to promote educational opportunity for all until 18, and not just for some. Let the Opposition join our consensus—that is my plea to them. I commend the Bill to the House.

4.12 pm

Michael Gove (Surrey Heath) (Con): I thank the Secretary of State for his speech. I enjoyed all 40 minutes of it. [Hon. Members: “Thirty-seven minutes.”] Indeed. I particularly appreciated the first 32 minutes, when he laid out his reasoning and the thinking behind the Bill. I am sure that the whole House will have found that helpful. However, the final five minutes, when he went into partisan, Punch-and-Judy mode, was an unfortunate coda to an otherwise interesting and analytically compelling speech. It is a great pity that someone with the Secretary of State’s intellect feels the need to indulge in partisan knockabout when we are discussing the Second Reading of the Bill, but I can forgive him that, because I recognise that his intentions are honourable.

In advancing any piece of legislation, the Government have to ensure that it passes a series of tests. Any Bill should pass three general tests before we can all have confidence that it will make good law. First, does it serve a desirable end? Secondly, does the legislation do violence to any valued principle; and if it does, is the end so transparently good that the damage to that principle is a price worth paying? Thirdly, are the mechanisms through which the legislation proposes to achieve the end the most effective that could be designed? I want to consider the Bill as set against those three tests and then propose some areas where greater clarification or amendment might be required to improve the effect of the legislation.

On the first question, whether the Bill serves a desirable end— [ Interruption. ] I see the Secretary of State proffering what I think is a note of apology to the Liberal Democrats’ Front-Bench spokesman for some unmannerly words. We know that when the Secretary of State descends into partisan mode, he is only putting it on and that, in his heart, he regrets it, so we can entirely forgive him on this occasion.

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